Touched a Nerve
My blog is normally a rather quiet, sleepy space where I do some musing for a few friends and readers and try to keep my links and thoughts organized and retrievable. In my last post I seemed to have touched a nerve with some people’s experience at Calvin Seminary (CTS). You can read the comments in the comment thread in yesterday’s posting.
My original purpose was not to critique CTS but rather to get a handle on Christian Reformed Church (CRC) culture and leadership. As I mentioned in my write-up on the Task Force Reviewing Structure and Culture (TFRSC) piece last week structure if far easier to talk about and adjust than culture.
- Culture is implicit.
- We create culture even when we don’t know that we’re doing it.
- Culture governs in deeper ways than structure often.
- Culture is difficult to recognize in ourselves because it is so close to us
- Culture is emotionally difficult to evaluate and critique because we naturally get defensive for reasons we are not often conscious of.
When, as with the last posting you hit a nerve, it is usually a good indication that you may be touching culture. Once you touch it you may be able to talk about it.
While leadership can be studied and principles, practices and values can be articulated and discussed, I think leadership is best seen by modeling and learned by mentoring. This is especially true of where leadership and culture meet. Good leaders create culture even when they don’t know they are doing it.
To talk about leadership and culture in terms of “good” and “bad” tends to be reductive. Leadership and cultures pursue different values that may be helpful or unhelpful seeking different outcomes.
In history leadership in cultures that were successful (in a rather Darwinian sense in that they were able to propagate themselves and overcome their competitors) addressed the challenges of their age. Those cultures tend to get carried on and perpetuated but when the challenges change leadership, culture, institutions and structures must change too so that the narrative thread of a people or a tradition may continue to move forward. All of our talk about “adaptive change” is at this level. As an anxious community we are suspecting that we need to adjust leadership style, culture, and institutions in order for our narrative thread to continue to exist, be productive and impact broader narratives.
Leadership and Fear
Yesterday’s posting generated a lot of comments about fear. “Fear” is a big word that covers a lot. Fear is not necessarily a bad thing. Fear informs us of threats, as information, however a discerning person will evaluate the threats and decide on a response to the perceived threat. Fear is a pre-rational response. Our bodies instinctively react to physical threats, and our selves without our cultures and experiences likewise develop emotional responses and anticipatory responses to relational threats and threats to perceived goods that we possess consciously or pre-consciously. There’s a lot going on in this.
I think fear is one of the ways we can get a handle on culture and learn something about our selves and our communal tradition and narrative thread.
Leadership has everything to do with fear, how it informs us, what we learn from it and how we respond to it. Leadership is about helping a community navigate change and fear is a primary data point in knowing our world, even the implicit, relational, spiritual and murky world that is not easily available to us empirically. Leadership majors in responding to change and engaging fear productively.
- Leaders respond to their own fears and the fears in their community
- Leaders use fear sometimes to mobilize a community to address a threat or take action to impact and perpetuate their narrative thread
- Leaders sometimes overcome fear realizing that wise courage is often a hallmark of good leadership.
- Self-sacrifice is also a common hallmark of good leadership which also requires courage, confronting and engaging fear
- Leaders assess fear as data so as to read what is not obvious or on the surface, understand what is implicit and to hear and know and love the people they are called to lead.
Fear at CTS of the “File”
I’ve received a lot of response from present and past students at CTS about their fears of being candid because it might jeopardize their reputation and their future in the CRC. I think this is an important data point, not as a facile critique of the CRC, CTS or our culture, but in terms of us understanding ourselves.
As a student at CTS I don’t remember being terribly afraid of my file (I mostly didn’t know there was one, I always assumed there was an implicit one, reputation is a reality) or not being allowed to be ordained in the CRC. I was naïve and becoming ordained wasn’t necessarily a high value for me. I wasn’t terribly conscious at that time in my life about jobs or my future career and unlike most students neither was I married or had children. As a single guy I had always been able to make enough money to live on, my needs were few and I didn’t give much thought about the future beyond wanting to make a contribution in one way or another.
I think it’s also the case that our temperaments and personalities impact this. Some of us can’t keep our mouth’s shut, like to blog, and don’t necessarily pay a lot of attention, for better or for worse, what we’re doing. This may be courage or it may be folly or it may be both.
Although I love the CRC and am in some ways intensely loyal to it and its institutions, part of my attitude was that I would work in the CRC or in some other place, wherever whatever I wanted to do seemed to fit best.
I remember my interview with the CTS board for licensure and the scuttlebutt we as students shared in preparation for this. Some of my classmates expected questions about Genesis and science. Others told me “they’re going to ask you about liberation theology.”
I remember thinking, “hmm, that’s interesting. I apparently have a reputation with my classmates and I have probably said and done things that have generated this with my professors who will pass this along to the board.” But again, I didn’t really worry about it. I’ve always been overly cocky and figured I’d be able to satisfy their concerns sufficiently to have it not be a problem. I had a sense for the community norms and knew I was both within them and could defense myself as being within them.
Now again, I was in a different place in life than many CTS students both then and now. I didn’t have a family to support. I didn’t have debt. I wasn’t as primarily concerned with employment as I was with finding interesting and meaningful work. After I in fact was employed I discovered that getting paid a salary was really rather nice! After I had a family to support I grew anxiety and responsibility to keep their little mouths fed and their little bodies clothed. I can better appreciate the fears of some of the students who wrote to me.
Before I get more comments about being unfair or not generous to the CTS faculty in the 80s, let me be clear. To a man (and they were all men) every CTS faculty member that I knew (and being a small school I knew them all to one degree or another) was a wonderful, Christian, godly man who at every exchange and interaction communicated to me that they wanted the best for me, my education and my future. They of course had their own opinions on things that might have differed with my own but in every case I can say there were on my side and wanted to help me develop into a leader who could contribute to the CRCNA. None of what I’m saying here is to take anything away from them in terms of their character or intentions. That said, they did also operate within a rather thick culture, which I will get at next.
Criticism and Conformity in the CRC Cultural Matrix
Other comments that arose said “I’d like to comment but I’m an employee of an agency.”
Again, as an employee of an agency you’ve got an obligation to be responsible in your public speech. We all get that. But we also get that this obligation also has its limits.
After reading all of the comments generated by my previous post I’ve come to appreciate the high value that CRC has in its cultural matrix on conformity. Cultural values are usually enforced positively and negatively. The CRC has a THICK culture and we implicitly enforce values both positively and negatively. One of our highest values as a culture is conformity.
I remember the first time I read through the church order at CTS. My overriding thought was “the CRC has a church order whose primary mission is to maintain doctrinal purity. It has established numerous check and balances to insure that generation after generation continue to maintain the doctrinal thread of its tradition.”
Please don’t misunderstand me. This is a wonderful value. All community narrative traditions must maintain their story line and doctrine is a foundational value for our confessional church. Also please don’t interpret what I am saying as “well we used to have to maintain value but now self-preservation requires that we change our doctrine in order to exist institutionally” OR “doctrine never changes but we can change our forms”. This was the seeker talk about doctrine that Willow liked to promote. Both ideas are too simplistic. Doctrine and a community’s narrative thread interact in deep and subtle ways.
What I want to note, however, is that because doctrinal traditions is such a deep value for us, we’ve got nerves all over it. If you get close to it people WILL respond, sometimes trying to enforce positively or negatively to reinforce the value, or to reject it for one reason or another. In a community people will respond in BOTH ways in may different expressions.
My point here is NOT ABOUT DOCTRINE (I have to yell because this is such a deep and sensitive value for us), it is about conformity as a cultural value.
Another data point on the conformity value was the alternate paths to ministry and the Credential pastor track. The denomination again and again has reinforced CTS as a primary vehicle for leadership training AND vetting. Why? Not because you can’t learn Reformed doctrine in other places, but because conformity is of such a high value to us, and conformity can be subtle and implicit, in the words of my beloved Church Ed. prof at CTS Spud Snapper “I’ve got to smell their breath”.
It is also important to note that if you’ve got a strong value like conformity there will often be an opposite reaction to it where people will create their identity in opposition to the value and the community. Think Paul Schrader making a movie named “Hardcore” with the main character being a CRC father thinly veiled, and while we might have covered our eyes at the naughty bits or didn’t even see the movie we’ve heard about it. Think Peter Kreeft’s defection to the RC.
Conformity as a strong culture value ALSO elicits defensiveness. This is natural cultural behavior.
Conformity as a strong cultural value also explains why we are often so clumsy when it comes to issues of diversity. Doctrinally we KNOW we need to be diverse, but our cultural value makes diversity difficult. Again, don’t get defensive about it, just recognize our challenges.
Conformity is a fine value. Every community has it. Every community needs it. The question at hand tends to be how strong is this value relative to others and how it is playing out as we engage our present challenges.
Why Conformity Is So Strong in Us
A lot I think has to do with our narrative thread.
Our narrative thread comes through a country that is pressed between France, Germany, the other great powers of Europe and the sea. We found it easier to take land from the sea than our neighbors. Is this telling us something?
The Netherlands was also a land of refugees (my roots are Jewish) and outliers. This is why the Reformed flourished there (as in Switzerland, another land of refugees) Conformity is a strong value by which a minority group struggles to maintain a cultural identity. When it came to America it had its survival values down.
A few more observations
- Our system was built to resist Roman Catholicism (ours is a reactive tradition)
- Because we’re a reactive system (and reaction can become a habit) schism was also a threat and so we’re on watch against that and built against that (unsuccessfully)
- We have institutions built primarily for preservation, it was probably not imagined that the threats we would face would be like those we face today. Secularism tends to erode from within and underneath in ways that our conformist habits don’t address well.
Two Understandable Outcomes
First, I can understand why CTS students, agency employees and CRC pastors in general feel pressure to conform. It is safe to blend in with the masses. This is very different cultural value than we see in other cultural communities where obvious individual self-expression is valued. CRC folks often feel safer under the radar. We are like small mammals that like to burrow. Maybe hobbits too.
In a CRC institution you can do better by building a career slowly in the inside through conformity and reassuring others of your allegiance to the hive.
Second, it also helps explain why CRC leaders get outside of CRC institutions in order to thrive and make a larger impact in the world. Lew Smedes went to Fuller as did Rich Mouw. Nick Wolterstorff went to Yale. Alvin Plantinga went to Notre Dame. Bill Hybels started an non-denominational church. Peter Kreeft went to the RC. (Note how many of these are academics. I think we have a thinking vs. doing problem too, but that’s the subject of a different posting.)
Strong leaders will often break out of containment cultures in order to exert leadership more freely and broadly. A strong leader at CTS might just leave, or just choose Fuller or Westminster or Regent from the outset or skip seminary entirely.
Is Our Culture Helping Us? Should We Adjust it?
This is a hard question, one we can’t fully answer. It is a good question for discussion though.
We are probably in a cultural moment where innovation is likely more important to our narrative thread than conformity. That is of course subject to debate and will be debated. One faction of the church says the best way forward is to double down on our confessional tradition. Others want to highlight the catholiticy of our confession and cozy up to our liturgical and catholic roots. Others want to be more non-conformist. These factions will be the voices of our debate moving forward.
Leadership involves productively engaging fear, learning the context, acting and speaking.
Time’s up for me on this right now. I hope it generates some discussion. Please if you post on Facebook or CRC-Voices consider cutting and pasting in the comment thread too so that others not in those silos can benefit from your contribution. pvk